Review by Ray Hearne in Stirrings, May, 2013
Those of you lucky enough to catch John on stage at the Dorman’s (formerly Nature’s World) Festival back in July will have readily fallen under his spell, for John is one of that rare breed, a performer in whose company and with whose music you immediately feel at home. His delivery is immediate and appealing: he’s blessed with a rich singing voice, and there’s a full-toned, gloriously mellifluous quality to his genuinely complementary instrumental accompaniment (primarily mandocello and bouzouki, but he’s also a dab hand at various guitars, mandolin, whistle and harmonica). And his songwriting is top-notch too!
Actually, like his good friend Ray Hearne, John would probably prefer to be called a contemporary song-maker, for that term most accurately describes his craft, the folk process personified. His tunes often seem more than just comfortingly familiar, and sure, some may have been “appropriated”, even slightly, from traditional sources, but this never gets in the way of our appreciation of the sentiments being conveyed. Exploring the myriad of possibilities that song-making can provide, we find a remarkable variety within John’s writing, both in terms of mood and subject-matter: from scathing and fun political commentary (Jump In The Jordan) to a tear-jerkingly poignant portrayal of solitude and yearning (The Lonely Mountain, a disc highlight), from the sardonic and hilarious “doggie’s delight” Bow Wow Wow and the gleefully ribald account of the guano wars of the 1840s (honest!) to the time-honoured nostalgia of Call The Cattle Home. The search for home and the words of a lost song provide the impetus for standout track The Girls Of Kinkane, while All You’ll Taste Is Your Tears is a tender tribute to Bert Jansch (a life-long inspiration). The Reaper’s Blade is a masterly, if chilling slice of reflective nostalgia, whereas in contrast the disc’s title track recounts the lively tale of the Darts & Dominoes League of Boza (aka Bolsover, John’s current town-of-residence).
John has a pronounced knack for colourful expression of situations, with a gift for a punning turn of phrase too when appropriate, together with an ability to pen a catchy and anthemic chorus. And, importantly for any folk writer, he maintains a strong interest in historical figures and events, assessing their impact with a true compassion and humanity. Even down to its one trad-arr selection, You Lovers All, the whole CD is stamped with John’s own individual musical personality, but here he enjoys some harmony vocal contributions from son Paddy (who also plays a neat bit of guitar on a couple of tracks) and Tom Chester.
The only slight criticism I might make is that when playing the sequence through, I detect a similarity of melodic contours in successive songs, and in such situations, John’s leisurely, measured gait and broad tempos may seem just mildly ponderous for a time; so an obvious solution might be to adopt a reshuffle of the running order. But in the end, anyone with a taste for well-crafted and memorable songs performed reliably and a touch old-fashionedly (I mean that in the nicest possible way!) should need no persuading to investigate John’s creations forthwith: check out www.thegreypicker.com.
I have to declare an interest. After agreeing to review this milestone collection I spotted on the sleeve my own name amongst those to be thanked. I can only assume this is because for thirty years or so, mostly with enormous gaps between communications, myself and the Grey Picker, aka Bozer chansonnier John Young, have been the entire membership of a mutual appreciation club.
For anyone who savours contemporary folk song-making there is much here to be reckoned with; intimately personal, excoriatingly political; sumptuous melodies honouring a life-time’s immersion in Irish and Scottish traditions; language with a range of major stops out-pulled, lyrical, anthemic, belly-laughingly vernacular; loss and bereftness outweighed, even if rarely, by diamond moments of human togetherness; mountainous bleakness coming in second always to an inextinguishable faith in that ancient mother goddess, Solidarity.
The range of styles and tones shows the apprentice-trained craftsman, with mandocello and other instruments, bringing his skills to bear on issues big and small, from the inspirational role, as we approach the thirtieth anniversary, of women in the miners’ strike, to Tony Blair, godfathering Rupert Murdoch’s latest child; from the brilliantly satirical John Paul 2 lampooning the Church’s sidestepping of inconvenient dogma, to the bitingly sardonic Bow Wow Wow, with its array of vicious ‘army doggies in disguise’ growling in mock London Met accents.
The Picker’s villains include not just the usual cynics, hypocrites and power-mongers at global level, they extend to the everything’s-for-sale culture that has destroyed the rural landscape of his Yorkshire Wolds childhood, or the endemic village bully who gets his comeuppance in an epic ‘Fives and Threes’ showdown.
The whole album is a paean to the possibilities of song, most tellingly exemplified in and by The Girls of Kinkane. As in an ancient aisling poem a narrator is approached by a woman who can’t remember an old song of that name. As her story unfolds, the lost song becomes the very one we are listening to.
The slightly self-deprecating sobriquet of The Grey Picker conceals a very talented singer-songwriter. Meet John Young, a hitherto familiar face on the 1980s South Yorkshire folk club scene who after a 25-year absence reinvented his performing career around three years ago with a new CD of self-penned songs, Namaste; a second offering, Eight And Forty, followed in 2011, and now comes Fives And Threes, the third album in the series, which is well up to (and may even surpass) the high standard already set by its predecessors.